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Owens v. Mason

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division

December 13, 2018




         This civil-rights action is before the Court on multiple motions: Plaintiff's motions [3, 5] for “Temporary Injunction, ” Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings [14], and Plaintiff's motions [17, 21] to amend the complaint. The Court finds that Defendants' motions should be granted and Plaintiff's motions should be denied.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         This suit relates to the seizure of real property in satisfaction of a default judgment entered by the County Court of Hinds County, Mississippi. Defs.' Ex. A [14-1] (Complaint in Harris v. Owens d/b/a Black Diamonds Nightclub, Cause. No. 14-3969). In January 2016, Marteze Harris obtained a default judgment against Daniel Owens d/b/a Black Diamonds Nightclub (“the judgment debtor”) for failure to participate in and/or respond to discovery requests. Defs.' Ex. B [14-2] (Order); Defs.' Ex. C [14-3] at 14 (Judgment). Harris's counsel, Defendant Ben Wilson, represented that the judgment debtor owned real property in Hinds County-the Black Diamonds Nightclub-which could satisfy the judgment. The Hinds County Circuit Clerk issued a Writ of Execution, signed by Defendant Deputy Clerk Karla Bailey, and the Hinds County Sheriff's Department seized the property. Defs.' Ex. C [14-3] at 15 (Writ of Execution).

         On May 23, 2017, Plaintiff Danny M. Owens filed a Complaint for Emergency Relief in County Court, seeking to block the eviction. Owens claimed that he-not his son the judgment debtor-owned the real property. Defs.' Ex. C [14-3] at 2 (Complaint in Owens v. Harris, Cause No. 17-01909). After holding a hearing, County Court Judge Staci O'Neal denied the Complaint, finding Danny M. Owens “owned the property and participated in the management of the business which took place on the real property at issue.” Defs.' Ex. D [14-4] (Order (emphasis added)).

         Plaintiff Danny M. Owens is now suing Hinds County Sheriff Victor P. Mason, Bailey, and Wilson in this Court, alleging that they violated his right to due process by issuing and executing the writ. Compl. [1] at 1 (invoking 42 U.S.C. § 1983). Owens maintains that he alone owns the subject property, not the judgment debtor. Mason and Bailey (the “Moving Defendants”) seek dismissal. It does not appear that Wilson has been served.

         II. Standard

         A motion for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) is “subject to the same standards as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).” Doe v. MySpace, Inc., 528 F.3d 413, 418 (5th Cir. 2008). In considering a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), the “court accepts ‘all well-pleaded facts as true, viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.'” Martin K. Eby Constr. Co. v. Dall. Area Rapid Transit, 369 F.3d 464, 467 (5th Cir. 2004) (quoting Jones v. Greninger, 188 F.3d 322, 324 (5th Cir. 1999) (per curiam)). But “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To overcome a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a plaintiff must plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Id. at 555 (citations and footnote omitted).

         III. Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [14]

         Moving Defendants Mason and Bailey assert that (1) Owens's suit is subject to res judicata; (2) his § 1983 individual-capacity claims are barred by absolute immunity; and (3) his § 1983 official-capacity claims fail for lack of a county policy that was the moving force behind the alleged constitutional violation. Though the res judicata argument is likely dispositive, the Court will address all grounds.

         A. Res Judicata

         Defendants say this lawsuit is barred by the doctrine of res judicata because Owens unsuccessfully contested the seizure in state court. Res judicata “bars the litigation of claims that either have been litigated or should have been raised in an earlier suit.” Test Masters Educ. Servs., Inc. v. Singh, 428 F.3d 559, 571 (5th Cir. 2005). “The test for res judicata has four elements: (1) the parties are identical or in privity; (2) the judgment in the prior action was rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction; (3) the prior action was concluded by a final judgment on the merits; and (4) the same claim or cause of action was involved in both actions.” Id. All factors are met here.

         First, the parties are identical or in privity. In the County Court Complaint for Emergency Relief, Owens named Mason as a Defendant, challenging his execution of the writ in his capacity as Sheriff of Hinds County. State-Court Compl. [14-3] at 1-2. Here, Owens again names Mason in his official capacity as sheriff and adds Bailey in her official capacity as Deputy Clerk. Compl. [1] ¶ 22. “A non-party defendant can assert res judicata so long as it is in privity with the named defendants.” Roa v. City of Denison, No. 4:16-CV-00115-ALM-CAN, 2017 WL 9287012, at *11 (E.D. Tex. Aug. 29, 2017) (citing Gulf Island-IV, Inc. v. Blue Streak-Gulf IS OPS, 24 F.3d 743, 746 (5th Cir. 1994) (rejecting argument that res judicata applies only to party against whom plea is asserted)). Mason and Bailey are in privity because both are affiliated with Hinds County. Johnson v. Hays Cty., No. A-14-CA-834 LY, 2014 WL 5524144, at *4 (W.D. Tex. Oct. 31, 2014) (“Defendants who are members of the same government agency are generally treated as being in privity for purposes of being able to assert a res judicata defense.”) (citing Boone v. Kurtz, 617 F.2d 435, 436 (5th Cir. 1980) (finding res judicata barred second suit adding IRS commissioner where first suit named only IRS agents); Benbow v. Wall, No. 13-757 S., 2014 WL 652354 at *6 (D.R.I. Feb. 19, 2014) (dismissing prisoner's second suit based on res judicata despite addition of new defendant who was employed by same agency as original defendants)); see also Sunshine Anthracite Coal Co. v. Adkins, 310 U.S. 381, 402-03 (1940) (“There is privity between officers of the same government so that a judgment in a suit between a party and a representative of the United States is res judicata in relitigation of the same issue between that party and another officer of the government.”).

         Second, it is undisputed that the County Court of Hinds County is a court of competent jurisdiction. State-Court Compl. [14-3] ¶ 4 (acknowledging court's jurisdiction). Third, the first suit was concluded by a final judgment on the merits. Judge O'Neal denied Owens's Complaint for Emergency Relief because he owned the parcel subject to the writ and participated in the management of the nightclub. Defs.' Ex. D [14-4] (Order). This finding concluded the action.

         Finally, the same claim or cause of action was involved in both lawsuits. Here, Owens says he, not the judgment debtor, is the owner of the seized property. Compl. [1] at 3-4. In ...

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